Academic Freedom and Discontent

Peter Wood

Academic freedom is one of the core doctrines of higher education. By “doctrine” I don’t mean an unquestioned or unquestionable idea.  Everything can be questioned and it is another core doctrine of higher education that everything should be questioned—in the right time and place. The kind of “doctrine” I am referring to is the more or less explicit agreement among interested parties that, in order to get on with the work, we will act as if something is true. 

To get on with the work of higher education, we have to imagine or at least pretend that certain conditions hold. Our premises include the idea that students are capable of learning and that teachers are capable of teaching. That seems uncontroversial, although we all know of students who don’t seem to be capable of learning much and teachers who can’t teach their way out of a paper bag.  Still, it seems worthwhile to set those cases aside as exceptions to get on with the work of learning and teaching among the rest.  

Troubled Doctrines

Learning and teaching thus have a doctrinal basis.  Some of the other core doctrines of higher education are a bit more advanced and perhaps troublesome. Higher education is, or least long was, premised on the idea that “knowledge is good,” and the pursuit of knowledge is intrinsically worthwhile. To the extent this premise holds, we don’t have to justify spending time trying to find things out or passing along this knowledge to others.  But as I said, a doctrine like this can be troublesome. Knowledge is not always good. Think of the mad scientist exception. Sometimes we pursue knowledge at too great a cost to ourselves or others, and we end up with a Faust, a Frankenstein, or a Dr. Moreau. 

Yet another core doctrine of higher education is that the world is coherent and open to human understanding. A related doctrine is that truth exists and can be, in principle, distinguished from non-truth. Yet another is that human knowledge has an underlying unity such that what stands as truth in one domain must be true in all domains. Thus the truths of mathematics are, in principle, in the same continuum as the truths of history.  That example illustrates the troubled nature of some of these doctrines. We may intuit that there is something very different about a mathematical proof deemed to be true and a historical fact likewise taken to be true.  The differences between these two kinds of knowledge seem large and compelling.   But higher education, at one level, overrides the differences between them. Mathematics and history are different disciplines but we make them part of a single university, a word which refers to the single whole of knowledge.

In our time, almost all of these doctrines have begun to fall apart. As long ago as 1971, the sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote a book titled the Degradation of the Academic Dogma, warning that the idea that we should seek knowledge for its own sake was being comprised by the demand that universities produce usable knowledge. Nisbet traced this degradation to the post-World War II idea that universities could be fonts of research to drive capitalist economies. But he could easily have gone further back in American history. In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress passed the Morrill Act, creating the framework for land-grant colleges. The bill expressly favored institutions that would provide practical training for future farmers and students of the mechanical arts, and the bill’s sponsor, Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont, heaped scorn on classical learning.[1]

Thus, even before the founding of America’s first research universities in the 1870s, the nation had set a course that brushed aside the notion of knowledge for its own sake.  So was Nisbet merely fantasizing that there had ever been an “academic dogma” of knowledge for its own sake?   No, the Morrill Act itself bears witness to the idea that many Americans were drawn to this idea. If not, Senator Morrill would not have worked so hard to put it down. But that tells us something about core academic doctrines. They are seldom so well established that they are beyond dispute. Someone is always tearing up the railroad tracks. 

And today, most of the core doctrines of higher education have been derailed several times over. We live in an age where the idea of knowledge has itself been knowledgably deconstructed by various theorists armed with the blowtorches of skepticism. We have no working agreement that knowledge is good; many value the academic enterprise not in its own right but as an extension of political ideals; and the old concept of the underlying coherence of the world has been ravaged by post-modernist delight in fragmentation.

A Social Contract and a Moat

But what does any of this have to do with “academic freedom?” Actually a great deal. Academic freedom is a doctrine like the others I have mentioned rooted in the history of an institution. The university found that, in order to get on with its work, it needed some basic agreement that students would be free to learn and professors free to teach—without undue interference from civil authorities and with some guarantee of internal toleration. Having students or faculty members hauled off to prison for reading books or pronouncing ideas disliked by the townsfolk was a practical problem, and so was the prospect of faculty members whose mutual detestation could get in the way of teaching.

The doctrine of academic freedom, of course, could not make such tensions disappear, but it could and did provide a way to defang them. Academic freedom is, in effect, the moat that surrounds the ivory tower. It is the doctrine that says to the townspeople, “Don’t get too worked up. It is only the university. They do things their own way.” It is also the doctrine that says to the academics, “Say what you need to say, but remember you are enjoying the privilege of speaking freely only within the context of your discipline.” 

Academic freedom, as it arose among European universities over the centuries, was a kind of social contract—an agreement between town and gown to show each other some forbearance.  Over time, it gained more specific meaning. 

But before we tackle that, let’s consider the remarkable circumstance of the academic freedom doctrine right now. We live in an age in which almost all the other core doctrines of the university have been shredded. But not academic freedom. It alone is upheld as the one great indispensable ideal.   Why is that? Academics in every discipline, at every kind of college and university, and representing every political position urge the continuing importance of academic freedom. But this unanimity is an illusion. There is broad consensus that something called “academic freedom” is important, but no consensus at all on what academic freedom means. 

Highway or Can Opener?

To understand the enduring popularity of this one core academic doctrine amidst the ruins of so many other core doctrines we have to recognize that “academic freedom” means one thing to academic traditionalists and something radically different to academic progressives.  Traditionalists view academic freedom as something like a limited access highway. It permits great freedom of movement, but it has its own rules and it doesn’t go everywhere. Academic freedom is not a license for driving west in the eastbound lane, for parking your car in the median, or careering recklessly across the road. Progressives, on the other hand, view academic freedom as something like a can opener. It is good for opening things up and that’s about it.  

Academic Freedom, 1915

Let’s let these metaphors sit for a while and turn to a more academic consideration of academic freedom. What is “academic freedom”? A canonical definition was provided by the American Association of University Professors in its 1915 Declaration of Principles. Academic freedom, said the AAUP, is freedom of inquiry and research, freedom of teaching, and freedom of extra-mural utterance. The AAUP framed this definition in the aftermath of controversies in which professors had lost their positions as a result of publishing their views. The central case involved Professor Edward Ross, dismissed from Stanford University in 1900 because he campaigned for “free silver” and a ban on Asian immigration. Ross also called for municipal ownership of utilities and public scrutiny of railroads. Jane Lathrop Stanford, widow of Leeland Stanford, and Stanford University’s only trustee, pressured Stanford president David Starr Jordan to fire Ross, and Jordan accordingly pressured Ross to resign. That’s what lies behind that curious phrase “extra-mural utterance.” Among other things, Ross was criticized for his “slangy and scurrilous” way of speaking. One other faculty member was fired for defending him and seven others resigned in protest.

Beyond the extra-mural utterance part, the definition is transparent. Freedom of inquiry and research and freedom of teaching don’t need much explication. But note that it is a composite definition. Academic freedom is not a simple right. It is a collection of freedoms that are highly contextualized. It assumes the existence of the university and makes certain claims that have meaning only within the university. 

Academic freedom thus doesn’t apply to publishers, politicians, political movements, pundits, or a thousand other contexts where people might demand freedom of expression. Freedom of expression and academic freedom are not the same thing—at least not according to the AAUP in 1915. 

Whose Freedom?

Some people can claim academic freedom and some cannot. We most readily think of academic freedom as a possession of faculty members, but they are not alone in enjoying it. Students also are traditionally recognized as having academic freedom. The 1915 AAUP statement concentrated on faculty freedoms but acknowledged student freedom too, and cited the twin German words, Lehrfreiheit, freedom to teach, and Lernfreiheit, freedom to learn, as basic to the definition of academic freedom.  

The AAUP does not say, but tradition also sanctions three other proper claimants. Academic administrators are widely regarded as possessing this freedom. A college president, for example, has the same rights to inquire, research, teach, and engage in extra-mural utterance as a faculty member. Likewise, it is customary to think of colleges and universities as corporate bodies possessing a degree of academic freedom. These institutions traditionally sit at a sufficient remove from the affairs of society to be entitled to a freedom to devise their own research programs and curricula. Without that academic freedom, the academic freedom of individual faculty members would be a dead letter.

Finally academic freedom extends to people who are not institutionally part of the university but who are its guests. Invited lecturers, visiting researchers, and speakers who come to campus under the auspices of the university, can rightly expect that the protections of academic freedom will be extended to them.   This means they will not be shouted down, stampeded by mobs, afflicted with last-minute room changes to undisclosed locations, or made victims of any of the other techniques widely used by students, faculty members, and occasionally administrators used to disrupt speakers with whom they disagree.

Clearly a claim on having academic freedom is not enough to guarantee actual academic freedom. Academic freedom is, as I have said, a doctrine, not a description of how things actually work. It is a doctrine that is frequently ignored and often without consequence.   That doesn’t make it unimportant, for the doctrine at least enunciates how things should be and provides a basis for calling down shame on those who make things otherwise.

Non-Academic Freedoms

I have written that academic freedom ought not to be confused with freedom of expression. In the United States, freedom of expression is embodied most succinctly in the First Amendment, and has been elaborated in countless legislative acts and judicial decisions.   First Amendment freedom of speech covers a great many contexts, including universities, but it is not a simple duplication of academic freedom. Academic freedom is grounded, as the 1914 AAUP statement puts it, in “the nature of the academic calling” and the “the function of the academic institution.” It concerns the pursuit of truth by rigorous methods or by the most scrupulous methods available given the nature of the topic. 

Academic freedom is thus narrower than First Amendment freedom of speech. The latter allows for people to pronounce their opinions on any basis they choose. Fiction, falsehood, exaggeration, parody, statements embodying outrageous bias—all are permitted, at least within the very capacious limits of libel law. Academic freedom offers no such latitude. At least academic freedom properly construed. Academic freedom allows scholars and students to express opinions of highly controversial subjects, but this a freedom yoked to the scholarly pursuit of truth. 

In that light, we can also distinguish academic freedom from several other freedoms that are often mentioned as kindred. Freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, intellectual freedom, and freedom of self-definition each make a powerful claim against the powers that would restrict the individual in the name of some authority. But none of them are exactly identical to academic freedom.   They are variously civil, Constitutional, religious, and existential claims against society. Academic freedom, by contrast, is merely a kind of institutional bargain. Colleges and universities gain a zone of autonomy in which those engaged in scholarly pursuit of truth may do their work unhindered, and society in turn gains an institution dedicated to the expansion of important knowledge and its transmission from generation to generation.

If I Had a Hammer

The bargain, however, comes with a caveat. Academic freedom must be upheld consistently within the university. It cannot be a doctrine of freedom for some and not for others. Here, of course, is the great difference between the world faced by the AAUP in 1915 and the world we face today. In 1915, the scholars imagined the threat to academic freedom could only come from outside the university—from boards of trustees dominated by wealthy capitalists, from demagogic politicians, from clergymen stirring up their congregations, and hostile newspaper editors.  Today, it seems a much greater threat arises within the university, from faculty members, students, and administrators who have traded scholarly standards for political advocacy, and who see nothing wrong in attempting to marginalize or silence those with whom they disagree.

Here we touch again on the alternate—the progressive—view of academic freedom. I compared it to a can opener, as a tool for opening things up. Such a tool is needed according to the progressive view because important realities have been hidden away from public view by the rich and powerful. In this view, the most important task for educators is to make these realities visible, and doing so is bound to excite opposition from those who have something at stake in keeping them hidden. Thus academic freedom is an incipient revolutionary force. It is a device for forcing the hidden techniques of social and political oppression into the light of day. 

The progressive view of academic freedom gives the doctrine an entirely political character.  Ordinary academic inquiry—the kind that aims merely to expand the repository of factual knowledge—does not, according to this progressive view, need the assistance of academic freedom. The powers that be are all too content to see scholars toiling away at these incidental matters. Often their toils even help to sustain the system of privileges, so there is a slim chance that their work will excite opposition from the establishment. But those who labor on behalf of social justice and revolutionary change are in constant jeopardy of censure and repression. Academic freedom is their rhetorical shield against this. 

The divergence between the two versions of academic freedom is stark. The traditional version focuses on the scholarly search for truth, and the progressive version focuses on advancing political opposition to liberal society and the state. These are not, however, simple inversions of each other. The traditional version doesn’t aim to support the state; and the progressive version doesn’t completely jettison the notion of truth. Something more complicated is at work, something having to do with the conceptions of higher education embedded in these views.   The topic opens up too large a vista for this lecture, but I should at least point to it. The traditionalist view of higher education emphasizes the need to help each coming generation take possession of a whole civilization. The university exists, as first among its other functions, to engage students with their intellectual and cultural inheritance.   The progressive view, by contrast, emphasizes higher education as the means and opportunity to escape that inheritance. It views the primary function of higher education to be personal liberation, on the path to a larger social liberation.

Neither of these views is, on its face, laughably wrong or without merit. Taking possession of a civilizational inheritance and liberating oneself from the dead hand of the past are both worthy if somewhat contradictory goals.  But when it comes to academic freedom, I believe the traditionalists have the stronger case.

The University of Everyone

The university over the centuries won its relative autonomy by serving public ends. These included replenishing society’s reserve of learned men, especially in the professions that depend on advanced knowledge.  Those professions changed both as knowledge grew and as society shifted, but whether it was training for the ministry, education in medicine, or study of the sciences, the need remained at the center of the university’s work. And the progressives are right, of course, that this work involved social privilege. Only a few enjoyed these opportunities. 

America has dramatically changed the university by turning it into an institution for everyone, or nearly everyone, and creating social norms that make attending college an expected life-stage for more than sixty percent of American youth. The transformation of higher education from an elite institution to a mass market has inevitably changed what it teaches and how it teaches.   One consequence has been the abandonment of a core curriculum in which all students were expected to master a common body of material. Instead the curriculum broke into a great profusion of courses, majors, and programs with very little in common. Another consequence was the dilution of academic standards. At almost all colleges, entrance criteria were lightened, courses were made easier, and graduation requirements were relaxed.

New Freedoms

This isn’t the place to ponder whether these were worthwhile developments. The question is, rather, how did they bear on academic freedom? The answer is that they hollowed it out. Academic freedom of the sort enunciated in the 1915 AAUP statement depended on a faculty who shared an understanding of disciplined pursuit of truth. They had a common language that transcended their different fields of study and could rise to the defense of a scholar whose opinions, though provocative, were materially connected to his research and expertise. This is a center that has not held. The very best proof lies in the AAUP’s most recent statement on academic freedom, a document issued in September 2007 titled Freedom in the Classroom.[2]

It is essentially a polemic against people who complain that too many college professors are misusing their classrooms to advocate for their political views. The AAUP in 2007 doubted that such abuses take place, but was eager to explain that what might seem to outsiders to be attempts by professors to indoctrinate students are really efforts to help “students to comprehend ideas and apply knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline.”

Take careful note of that last clause, “knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline.” The AAUP, it seems, is no longer interested in the pursuit of truth itself, but in protecting conformity within academic disciplines. Read a little further into Freedom in the Classroom and it becomes clear that the academic discipline is now the AAUP’s horizon. If some faculty members with a political cause decided to set themselves up as a “discipline,” that is good enough for the AAUP, and the “discipline” they create has the full power of academic freedom to decide what “knowledge is accepted as true.” 

This is an epistemologically porous formulation and the sophisticated AAUP authors of Freedom in the Classroom were surely aware of that.  Disingenuousness is very much at the heart of this new version of “academic freedom,” since what it promotes is neither academic nor free. It is ideological and coercive. 

Under the “knowledge accepted as true” rubric it is entirely possible to justify lying, as long as someone accepts the lies as true. Similarly, the new standard poses no bar to circulating unfounded rumors and propaganda. As long as the “discipline” accepts the picture as true, textbooks can omit well-established facts that might be embarrassing to the advocates of a doctrine. There is no prohibition under this standard to editing texts selectively in order to mislead people in a preferred direction. Indeed, any technique that aids in moving “students to comprehend ideas and apply knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline” would seem an acceptable exercise justified in the name of the professors’ academic freedom.   

Academic freedom, in this version of things, becomes a closed circle. Back in 1915, academic freedom was conceived to match the shared understanding of a university faculty of legitimate academic inquiry. The AAUP today matches academic freedom to the conventions that hold within a “discipline.”  Some of these so-called disciplines are tiny; and some of them are overtly ideological and committed to advancing a political project.   Other disciplines, such as history, psychology, political science, and English can claim large numbers of practitioners but are represented by professional associations that routinely adopt political resolutions with no basis in disciplinary knowledge.


The AAUP’s new approach reduces the idea of academic freedom to rhetorical badinage. It becomes a way of justifying the behavior of the classroom teacher who abuses the authority of his position. It also seems to leave unprotected those who would speak without the cover of “knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline.” This seems quite close to a paradox. The AAUP ostensibly seeks to exculpate those faculty members who dare to speak the truth. It declares it does this on behalf of students who must “remain free to question generally accepted beliefs.” But then it leaves those whose earnest inquiries carry them beyond the resolutions passed by majority vote of the floor of the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association or some such body with no claim at all on the protections of academic freedom. 


The Larger Picture

In these remarks, I have deliberately remained at a fairly abstract level. That is not for lack of specific cases that might be discussed. Higher education in the United States and around the world is chock-a-block with disputes over academic freedom. The AAUP involves itself in many of these disputes; the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education likewise vigorously defends the freedom of students and professors punished for exercising their academic freedom. My organization, the National Association of Scholars, also engages with specific cases as well as the larger debate on principles.  For cases of outside speakers silenced or beset with attempts to impede their speech, I need look no further than some of my own experiences.  But I have avoided particular cases in this talk because the details are always sufficiently complicated and arresting in their own right that they tend to obscure the larger outline of the debate. And that larger outline deserves more attention than it usually receives.

This is an address sponsored by the Hamilton Institute and delivered at Hamilton College, which is no stranger to the forces that are ripping open the seam of academic freedom in American higher education.

I fear that the AAUP’s re-casting of the idea of academic freedom is becoming more and more common. It is a sinuous idea that seems to translate into other peculiar notions. We are not free unless we conform.  Students are not free unless they have been busted loose from the jailhouse of their original values.  Academic freedom justifies drowning out people who hold views that are not welcome on campus.  Academic freedom conforming to progressive orthodoxy trumps academic freedom conjoined to causes that are deemed racist, sexist, or otherwise unwholesome.

If this is where the university chooses ultimately to take its stand, I doubt that academic freedom will retain its aura of authority. The doctrine exists because of a long-standing agreement between society and the university. If the university unilaterally abrogates the agreement, it is hard to see how or why society should continue to show deference to the underlying principle. I predict it won’t. Claiming that everything is political and therefore the university is available as a tool of progressive politics may produce some short-term advantages to the political left, but it will—and perhaps already has—fatally compromise the university itself.

This is why I believe the traditionalists have the stronger case.  Academic freedom can only persist in an institution that strives to operate on a plane above politics, where it takes its central purpose as conveying that complex heritage we call civilization.

[1] Robert A. Nisbet. The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books. 1997. [Published originally by Basic Books, 1971]
[2] Matthew W. Finkin, Robert C. Post, Cary Nelson, Ernst Benjamin, and Eric Combest. Freedom in the Classroom. American Association of University Professors. 2007. http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/comm/rep/A/class.htm. Steve Balch and I published a line-by-line analysis and reply titled “A Response to the AAUP’s Report, Freedom in the Classroom.” Princeton: National Association of Scholars. September 2007. http://www.nas.org/polArticles.cfm?doc_id=32

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